• Jon Matthews

A white man trying to empathise with Black Lives Matter

A study in LA revealed that 1 in 2,500 white males die at the hands of the police in the United States. That is a terrifying statistic but it pales in comparison to the study’s primary findings: 1 in 1,000 black males die at the hands of the police in the USA. That means that a black man in the United States of America is more likely to be killed by the police than he is to win a scratch-card*.

I am not a black man, nor am I an (United States of) American. I grew up in the New Forest, where 97.6% of people are white, a number that was probably higher still when I was a child. There weren’t many BAME people around, but one thing we did have was gingers, of which I was one. Now, I’m not trying to suggest, in any sense, that the troubles faced by ginger people are in any way comparable to the troubles faced by BAME people, either now or historically. Ginger people were not forced into slavery and shipped half way across the world. Ginger people were not denied basic democratic and human rights for hundreds of years. Ginger people are not targeted more by the police than other hair colours. Ginger people are not more likely to go to a bad school or less like to go to university. Ginger people are not under-represented in the media, government or boards of major companies. 99% of the time being ginger is not an issue and ginger people are certainly not more likely to die at the hands of the police, here or in America. However, my experiences of being ginger is the starting point from which I try to empathise with the issues highlighted by organisations such as Black Lives Matter, even if it is one that is incredibly far removed.

Everyday, as a child, I would by the recipient of insults about my hair colour. Sometimes from classmates, sometimes from teachers and sometimes from strangers. Even as an adult, very, very occasionally someone shouts something from a car (less now that I’ve gotten blonder). This makes me feel hurt and angry but it is a drop in the ocean (even saying drop feels too big) compared to what a lot of BAME people have experienced. My experiences were probably less frequent, the words used do not carry the same weight of historical oppression and ‘othering’ as the words thrown at them. For me this is something that has almost completely stopped happening, a lot of BAME people are not so lucky.

A ginger child - not me.

Since the age of about 17, I’ve had long hair. When you have long hair, people tend to assume that you have also made certain lifestyle choices. When I was younger, I was stopped by the police on a fairly regular basis, mostly I was just asked questions but occasionally I was searched. One particular police officer took it upon himself to stop me or follow me every time he saw me for a period of about 3 months – until I took his number and threatened to complain. When I was about 20, someone I was drinking with nearly died after a police officer stopped her being taken to hospital because he assumed that she’d taken drugs (she’d had her drink spiked and ended up in hospital the next day after she didn’t wake up). Since the age of 21, the number of encounters I’ve had with the police amount to less than 10 and mostly have been as a witness to or victim of a crime. However, when I think about those earlier experiences it makes me angry that I was targeted, profiled and that my friend nearly died because of a police officer’s assumptions and it still makes me feel uncomfortable around police officers. BAME friends have told me that as youths they were stopped by the police on an almost daily basis and that, as adults, they still regularly are. My experiences with the police, angry as they make me, are insignificant compared to theirs.

The reason I’m saying this is not because I want to start some sort of #GingerLivesMatter movement – that would be insane, no one would join that. The reason I’m saying this is because if my experiences of abuse and police harassment make me feel hurt and angry and yet pale in comparison to those experienced by many black people, I cannot condemn them for how they are feeling, nor can I ignore their situation. To do so would be like saying, ‘I just got punched in the face’ to someone and them saying, ‘I just got punched in the face forty times’ and to act as if my experience was worse, ignore their plight and refuse to help them. Acknowledging their struggling, showing solidarity and doing what I can to help does not lessen my experience. White privilege, as it has been said many times, does not mean I haven’t experienced horrible situations – it just means that none of those situations happened because of the colour of my skin. I have to acknowledge that the colour of my skin has made my life so much easier, has almost certainly helped me out of certain situations and stopped me getting into others – mostly without me ever noticing.

Most of the time we don't notice our privilege.

I think that most people have felt the victim of some injustice or hurt by the words or actions of another towards them at some point in their life. When I think about the way I have been treated because of my working-class background, my hair colour or my general appearance at different points in my life, it hurts and it makes me angry. Then I try to imagine if that happened to me almost every day – for no good reason whatsoever, I can’t imagine it. If I try to add the weight of hundreds of years of historical and ongoing oppression, my feelings don’t come close. If I imagine looking at the media to see how ingrained and accepted certain labels are or see entire organisations set up just to express hate towards people like me or look to politicians and see them echo those sentiments in both their policies and their general rhetoric; I can't picture it, it is just so different to my own experiences.

What I am trying to say here, in my own clumsy and flawed way, is that we white people have probably all experienced the odd injustice and the odd hurt. Mostly being a white man is great and it protects me from all sorts of stuff, but occasionally it doesn’t. If I stop and imagine that those little injustices weren’t just little, but actually quite big, and that they weren’t the exception but were the norm and that that norm was endorsed by certain media outlets, political parties and millions of individuals around the world – I can start to properly empathise with many of the people protesting, even if my feelings still don't come close.

So, what do I do? I listen, I try to relate as best I can, I show solidarity and do everything in my power not to be a part of the problem (a long learning process) and I stand beside my human brothers and sisters and fight with them – if and when they want me to. Racism is shit, institutional racism is shit and black lives matter. Fuck the police.


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